by Juleana Enright
In this week’s post, we introduce the Slam Academy, a locally-based, locally-founded academy whose futuristic tech classes would make WarGames‘ David Lightman all swoony. Taught by experienced instructors and electronic cognoscente hailing from the Twin Cities, the school offers crash courses in electronic arts that go beyond simply teaching technological tricks but instead help students fine tune their skills and transform their hobbies. Slam Academy offers specialized, hands-on, unique courses from the ultra rare – Intro to VJing and Circuit Bending – to more specific skill set workshops, like Writing Music for Video Games and Film Scoring.
I could tell you all about it, but the details are probably best left to Slam Academy founder James Patrick and instructor Hal Lovemelt. With 15 years of DJ and producer credentials under his belt, who better than Patrick to create an educational environment geared toward supporting, developing, educating and (in turn) multiplying the electronic art scene?
Known as one of the pioneers of local VJing, Hal Lovemelt (aka Time Squid) is no stranger to the esoteric world of electronic art. Lovemelt has been exposing the Twin Cities to freak-style video virtuosity, projection mapping and video graphic manipulation through his work as founder and designer of the interactive video playground, Playatta.
I caught up with Patrick and Lovemelt to chat about the Slam Academy’s role in the TC art scene and how its courses are making electronic art affordable, accessible and – above all – wicked fun.
l’étoile: As a veteran local DJ/music producer, you’ve racked up quite an impressive resume. What inspired you to make the jump from practicing electronic arts to creating a learning environment devoted to teaching it?
James Patrick: It was through my own earnest pursuit of making music that led me to this position. My mentors (Jack Robinson, Paul Birken, Ben Nevile, Bruno Pronsato, and others) were always very eager to share their knowledge and, more importantly, their passion for the creative process. I felt so moved by those experiences that the act of sharing and collaborating became an important part of my daily creative process. Music is just infectious, and there is nothing like seeing someone else light up in the same way that you did years ago (and still do every day).
l’étoile According to the Slam Academy philosophy, you believe that electronic art shouldn’t be reserved just for those who can afford the technology. Slam believes anyone with a computer can make electronic art. Why is this notion so empowering?
Patrick: It’s empowering because it didn’t just happen overnight. For a long time electronic music (and art in general) has been reserved for those that could afford it. There was a high barrier of entry. In the past few years it’s become much more affordable – and there is very little reason that anyone can’t make electronic music if they have the desire too. We are finally at a point when making music with a computer has no higher barrier of entry than making music with a guitar. All you need is a computer, and not a very fast one at that, and you are good to go. There are plenty of free software packages that will get anyone producing music quickly. What we are trying to do is help people take advantage of the affordability of the technology. The reality is that finding joy in the creative process is so much more attainable than people think. It’s right at their fingertips. A little guidance down the right paths can go a long way in this case, and we want to help people make those realizations.
l’étoile: You’ve enlisted some of the Twin Cities best and most well-known names in the electronic scene – from seasoned DJs to music makers and academic minds. Why do you think this concept of experiential learning is so beneficial to those enrolling in the academy?
Patrick: Simply put, watching videos online, or sitting in a large format lecture, can’t compare to learning in a “hands on” environment. Of course we have lectures at Slam Academy, but with every lecture, every week, we have Lab Time. During Lab Time, anyone enrolled in a course at the Academy can come down and work one-on-one with a Slam Academy instructor or TA. I always say this in class, to encourage hands on time: You can read a book about playing piano all day long, but you won’t have any idea how to make music until you press your fingers to the keys. That’s when experiential learning happens. That’s what we focus on.
l’étoile: Tell us about some of the courses offered and registration cost.
Patrick: Our courses range from really basic stuff (Introduction to Electronic Music, Ableton 1) to more advanced topics. Since we are a really young organization, we are very open to experimenting with new content. We just added a VJ/Live Video class, and a class on Synchronizing music technology, a class where every student operates their own hardware drum machine or synthesizer. We have had circuit-bending workshops, workshops on writing music for video games. Coming soon we are doing a whole series of classes on film scoring. We do our best to make our classes cheap. That’s really important to us. We basically have two expenses to keep the Slam Academy ship sailing: rent, and teachers. No one is in this to get rich, but we take paying our instructors very seriously. That’s the only way we can get the best instructors. That all being said, classes range from $20 to $100 per session, depending on content.
l’étoile: Hal, how did you get involved with Slam Academy?
Lovemelt: JP [James Patrick] was always a bit intrigued with my non-traditional Ableton Live techniques, and him being a bit of an Ableton guru in town. We often ended up discussing software seduction. We have a bit of a metrosexual nerd-porn relationship. When he and his partners started the Academy, getting some Lovemelt video/VJ tech involved was only a matter of time.
l’étoile: Tell us about the course you head, Intro to VJing and Live Video Performance.
Lovemelt: Well first off I should say the first class is free, so if there is even a little bit of interest, come check it out on October 7. I’m designing the course as an introduction to live video performance and design. It will cover the history and development of the artform and also explore various techniques for creating and acquiring media content (designing, shooting, sampling, and producing), and then learn about various techniques for performance. It will include introductions to two software options (Modul8, and Resolume Arena 4). I’m also building a starter VJ pack of content, software demos, resources, and templates.
l’étoile: VJing and video manipulation is still a relatively new art form. I can only think of a handful of local VJs. How cool is it that you’re able to spread the skills over to a new generation?
Lovemelt: It’s totally excellent! I’m incredibly excited to teach. The art form itself is unlike any other, there are simply so many variables to the toolsets available, and so much creative possibility. I feel that sharing what I know will save so many motivated new technology artists so much time, allowing for a smooth evolution into it. I’ve spent half my adult life reading manuals and troubleshooting technology farts. The timing is also perfect now, these days the nerd-world of live video art is winning some amazingly exciting technology revolutions. Believe me, it’s the best time to jump in. I see a very near future where creative visions are dynamically and purposefully expressed, without massive technological headaches and limitations. There is nothing more liberating as an artist than to be jamming in the moment, sliding naturally in and out of artistic pinnacles of awesome without being constantly paranoid about signal flow, interference, software updates, plugin glitches, forgotten gear, ect.
l’étoile: The Slam Academy is devoted to being a “noncompetitive” learning environment. Do you ever worry someone will out master you in the VJ department or “steal” your gigs? What are most of the instructors’ stance on sharing knowledge and risking the competition?
Lovemelt: That is a great question. I don’t care, although I do admit that I used to. (Ego!) But I’ve come far enough, and evolved long enough. I believe now that the arts in general benefit hugely from a growing artist community – the more live-video artists out there, the more acceptance of the art form, the bigger the pool of inspiration, the more collaboration, the more venue integration (projectors in house!), the faster the technology evolves, the better. This is an amazing art-form with some fantastic technology available, it’s a lot of fun – let’s use it! Although I would say what we could benefit from in terms of “gigging” is a semi-organized local agreed upon pricing range. It’s an underpaid arena, and so the more transparency, the better.